Category Archives: anthropocene

Our Increasingly Overlit Night Skies

The recent atlas charting how artificial light has compromised the night-time sky globally over the fifteen years reveals the rapidly growing impact of light pollution on the diminished darkness of the night-time sky.   While astrological constellations provided a basis to organize time, space, and prognostication, they offered natural guideposts for maritime navigation.  But this place is increasingly compromised by the narrowing window of night-time  perception made terrifyingly clear in the first-ever light pollution atlas of the world.  Light pollution is the direct consequence of living in what Mathew Beaumont described as “post-circadian capitalism” in 2005– a condition where work-time is no longer governed by a clock, or biological rhythms of sleep, but both flexible employment and 24-7 economies have effectively expanded the working day to a continuous job, often enabled by continuous illumination.

The stunning maps produced of local declines of stellar visibility allow us to track the alarming increase in the diffusion of electric light in night skies across much of the northern hemisphere–an increase that many might see as closely tied to the rise of a “post-circadian capitalism” has been generated by ever-increasing nocturnal work, conducted often in artificially illuminated sites, roads, and sites of transit–and increasingly hazardous work that presses against the limits and rhythms of our circadian clocks, those internal clocks that respond to the exposure to daylight that are common to life from cyanobacteria to plants birds to mammals–but that the illumination of the night-time world seems to stand to challenge.  Visitors, as well as druids, flock to watch the sunrise at Stonehenge on summer solstice as a way to escape the tyranny of the 24-7, and the expanding of the working week and work-time in the New Economy offers few occasions for clear distinction between work- and leisure-time.  If post-industrial work and the simultaneity of information flows abandons the regimenting of work-time in 24-hour cities and ever-expanding night shifts, electrification allows increased prolongation of the workday in the nocturnal cities of the global economy.

If it is perhaps far more meaningful to meet the sunrise at Stonehenge when circadian rhythms seem so alienated from a large parts of the workforce, the decline of stellar visibility is the direct consequence of the ubiquitous afterglow of artificial lights we naturalize as “skyglow.”  The alarming rare of the growth of nocturnal illumination that warrants concern not only for the diminished visibility of starlight in populated regions, but the remove of dark skies for the bulk of the population.  The change is not limited to humans, and will impact animal life as well as our experience of the planet–and a neglected change of human geography we are only now able adequately to map–but seems to have compromised our relation to night-time skies.  What constitutes “natural brightness” has recently been rewritten and modified by the increasing levels of diffracted light and electric afterglow that is prominently visible in most inhabited areas of the world.  Indeed, “afterglow” increasingly has come to constitute what we call the inhabited world.  And the annual pilgrimage to Stonehenge to watch the midsummer dawn seems in ways increasingly enhanced, surprisingly, by the increased failure to differentiate dark from light or day from night, tied not only to what Jonathan Crary has described as the “despoliation of sleep” in late capitalism with the rise of 24/7 markets, that maximize attempts to grow profits, the rise of post-circadian capitalist society of post-industrial society is embedded in anthropogenic changes of the rapid increase in the effects of artificial light.

Cartographers long measured place against the stars–navigation long determined by the north star.  But the proliferation of artificial lighting sources across much of the inhabited world increasingly obstructs an large proportion of the starry night-time sky.  The result  seems a disorientation from astronomical points of reference–as light pollution causes a deep disturbance of the ecosystems of nocturnal animals and migrating birds.  The recent appearance of a detailed atlas of the diminishing of stellar visibility  by artificial night-sky brightness offers a detailed image of the costs of globalization we are not likely to forget without it–by tracing the atmospheric effects of what we now consider human habitation and its costs.  For although the over-illumination of much of the inhabited world has brought an artificial brightening of the night-time sky has only begun to be a subject of environmental study, the global mapping of the intensity of upward emissions across the globe will soon change that provides an astounding synthesis of  the new nature of the night-time sky–now mapped for the first time in totality by the and the database of the Sky Quality Meter by infra-red sensing.  Such detailed high-resolution cloud-free images of the distribution of light pollution document a measure of the scale of anthropogenic change whose consequences for global ecosystems is not only aesthetic, but suggests a real watershed for the habitability of the earth akin to global warming–hence, global brightening–from which there will be no return, and a large ecological change whose consequences on birds, nocturnal life, and plants is only being begun to be understood.

The synthetic maps of incredible clarity in the atlas synthesize some tens of thousands of high-resolution satellite images chart how the night sky is seen cross the world, measuring the local degradation of celestial light with a precision rarely assessed so comprehensively in the past.  The maps not only the expanse of light pollution, but are a measure of globalization:  the extent of night-time illumination, but the increased brightening of nocturnal skies, is not only a measure o human settlement, after all, but in large part the networks of transportation, communication, and industrialization that have not been tracked locally, reflecting as the do the construction of lighting on night-time roads, round-the-clock transportation networks like airports, expanding cities and extra-urban growth,as well as workspaces that run twenty-four hours a day.

The augmentation of light at night has come to grow at a rate of six percent each year in most of Europe and the United States that seem to “take us further from the stars” and from natural starlight.  The extent of the diminished visibility of the constellations from human sight from light pollution might offer a metaphor for global disorientation, with the increased  global surplus of artificial light and the diffusion of an ever-present artificial skyglow on the horizon of most of the inhabited world.  If stars provided a primordial site of contact with bearings–indeed the graticule by which Claudius Ptolemy imagined the ability to order spatial relations was astronomically derived–widely occurring afterglow from cities, highways, factories, airports, and suburbia not only create a diminished opportunity for star-gazing but a potentially disorienting disappearance of the Milky Way.


Never see the milky way.pngInternational Dark Sky Association


It is especially poignant that in an era of brightening skies, druids gather in the circle of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones to witness the spectacle of midsummer sunrise through the frames of longstanding massive ancient trilithons to celebrate the summer solstice.  The annual gatherings mark the closest approach of the sun to the planet, and greet the arrival of the longest day in the northern hemisphere in a world.  Yet in a region where night sky is increasingly less clearly differentiated from day, the observation of celestial lights on  Salisbury Plane are likely to be marred by the ever-present glow of electric lights.  And the increasing illumination of night-time skies have definitively altered how most Europeans will perceive the stars, and compromised the visibility of starlight to the naked eye across most of Europe and the inhabited world–especially in landlocked urban environments which are transformed to expansive islands of light that diffuse across the countryside, increasingly evident in satellite photography.




The interactive maps compiled from satellite images released this summer reveal the extent of global brightening in ways that suggest a massive scale of environmental change only begun to be assessed.  The maps chart the darkest districts of England are the Isles of Scilly, West Devon and Eden in Cumbria, most of England’s more populated territory suggest the particularly invasive nature of light pollution, and its difficulty to be clearly mapped–and the increasing diffusion of electric light into once-rural areas have created an unclear divide in which just over a fifth of England is not affected by the increased illumination of night-time streets.



Light:D legend

England’s Light Pollution and Dark Skies/© Natural England 2016. © Crown/ database right 2016 Earth Observation Group, NOAA National Geophysical Data Center.  Developed by LUC


The pronounced concentration of diffracted light emanating from electric lights in London remains striking for the diffusion that extends into the roads that ring the city–


London Light.pngEngland’s Light Pollution and Night Skies


–but the situation is symptomatic of the broader impact of electric light worldwide, which suggests that night time skies have been degraded across all of land-based Europe, and that the observation of stars in night-time skies only remain pristine in uninhabited areas at sea.


visual-impacts1.jpgFalchi et al. (2016)


Much as friends in San Francisco and Oakland now travel to the Eastern Sierras to witness the visibility of celestial light, and others based in Paris travel to islands in Croatia where they can take pleasure in the diminished radiant light that mars most astronomical observation closer to home, attempts to escape from the global brightening caused by the scattering of artificial light around urban environments compromise celestial visibility worldwide.   The increased pleasure of enjoying night skies leads to even some rapturous encounters with the revelation of a sky full of celestial lights, noticed by ecopsychology, suggests that noticing the signs of the night sky not only be an orienting need for animals, but individual well-being that the ubiquity of afterglow threatens to erode.  Yet the increased acceptance of LED lighting which scatters more widely through the atmosphere and creating  more intense skyglow than older technologies of long wavelength light.

The question is not only one of individual health, but historical preservation.  Recent calls for the “tasteful illumination” of the neolithic monument to kindle interest in the monument back in 2011 in hopes to “add some magic” to its ruins would have only returned the monument to artificial illumination it enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s, stopped only to reduce accidents on the nearby A303.  But the floating of the proposal rightly led some to caution that preserving Stonehenge in “its landscape and part and parcel of that is restoring Stonehenge to its sky, to keeping it as dark as possible”–despite its position close to the well-travelled A303 two-lane highway.




If the almost ubiquitous spread of skyglow offers a skewed way to map populations, expanding nocturnal illumination in the northern hemisphere may make the Salisbury skies far less of a privileged place to wait for the arrival of the solstice sun.  Although NASA’s satellite composite image of nocturnal illumination presents a picture of the regions most prominently effected, the effects of the compromising of the visibility of starlight to the naked eye is only beginning to be mapped as an environmental change of considerable consequence–


Visible Earth NASANASA’s Visible Earth Project


–and demand to be mapped in England in further detail.  While Milton celebrated how God “made the stars,/ And set them in the firmament of heaven/To illuminate the earth, . . . / . . . and rule the night, / And light from darkness to divide,” the division between light and dark has become increasingly blurred, as stars are rendered less visible by over-illumination, and the surrounding dark less “ever-during” and darkness is far less visible than it ever was, especially near the light-domes created by extended urban and extra-urban areas.


Britain at Night.png



As of 2010, the deterioration of light pollution to the naked eye grew in much of the UK:


Naked Eye Light Polution.pngLight Pollution to Naked Eye (2010)


The broadly documented phenomenon of ‘global brightening’ is concentrated in the most densely inhabited areas of the world, and correlates to economic production, as it concentrates in the northern hemisphere–as is shown in a recent interactive online map that reveals the extent of those areas of stellar visibility are compromised night-time skies, whose majesty are only visible in areas removed from illumination from diffused artificial light.  Indeed, global brightening and light pollution have come to exercise such strong visual impact on the night-time skies of much of the more densely urban areas that the Milky Way cannot actually be seen due to the reduction of night-time stellar visibility–here able to be contrasted with the Visible Earth project of electric light emissions.


Visible Earth NASA

mondo_ridotto0p25Istituto di Scienza e Tecnologia dell’Inquinamento Luminoso

scale bar SQM


The mapping of such atmospheric light pollution suggests the growing problem of the degradation of night-time skies on account of the increased illumination polluting night-time skies that has almost obliterated the pristine skies across Europe, with the Milky Way obliterated for much of England, from London to the north, Paris, the Netherlands, and northern Italy:  indeed, the introduction of LED lighting in the north has further compromised what was once called the “natural sky,” giving rise to personalized mapping of the artificial illumination of night-sky brightness by the The Dark Sky Meter app for iPhones, as “Myskyatnight” provides a tool making available night-sky brightness to all–and the creation of select “Dark Sky Parks” across the United States within national parks, to create preserves for night-sky visibility across the western states like Sedona, Arizona, the Colorado Plateau near Moab, Utah or the Grand Canyon–all joining  Dark Sky Places with sponsorship from the International Dark Sky Association based in Tuscon, Arizona.

The compromising nature of “Light Limiting Magnitude” is still painstakingly compiled, as of 2016, locally measuring the limiting magnitude of observation by the naked eye–the faintest star seen by unaided human sight, a rough guide to judging the degradation of night-time skies.


Light Limiting Magnitude.png


But the questions of different perceptions of the sky and the concentration of the diffusion of light pollution can better register the pervasiveness of night-time afterglow.




Indeed, most children in the United States aren’t familiar with the extent of celestial illumination of night-time skies, and indeed much of the night time skies are compromised in much of the northern hemisphere–


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide


–and the skies of Britain are filled with afterglow–


Britain at NightNASA-Earth at Night


And even if the monument of Stonehenge is not yet protected as a community adopting low levels of light pollution by the International Dark Sky Association, the Salisbury plane is filled with afterglow from artificial illumination of spreading rural suburbia–


Salisbury].pngNaked Eye Light Pollution



–if the extent of nocturnal illumination of the skies considerably varies across England, the nation which has sthe largest areas of dark sky in Europe, evident in the striking diffusion of night-time light between Manchester and Sheffield.


Manchester and Sheffield.pngNaked Eye Light Pollution


The neolithic monument is not yet truly so starkly illuminated as a faked photograph that recently made rounds on Twitter might suggest, making its illumination more absurd.




Despite the brightening of night-time skies of southern England, celestial observation was long commemorated in the ancient structure of Stonehenge, where the alignment of the world with astronomical skies took advantage of the plateaux of the Salisbury Plain.  The crowding of the inner circle of blue stones, erected between 2400 and 2200 BC, are bound off from visitors save the modern groups of druids, if summer solstice has encouraged pagan pilgrimages to the 4,500 year old circle of sarsen stone circle in hopes to partake in collective re-enactments of druidical rites of primordial worship of the arrival of the midsummer sun at sunrise, watching the sun rise at the closest point to earth’s northern hemisphere.


Stonehenge solstice


So heightened is the demand for attaining ecstatic existences of the many druidical groups in the United Kingdom’s English Heritage has booked visits within the sarsen stones over several of the weeks following the actual summer solstice, so as to accommodate their re-enchanting of the wonder of the rhythms of renewal of celestial light at a time when the afterglow of artificial light has obscured the stars in night-time skies for the majority of the world’s populations.


Western Europe light pollution.pngFalchi et al. (2016)


The recent compilation data of accurate measurements of human-generated light from “Sky Quality Meters” in some 20, 865 locations has led to a more exact measurement of current levels of light pollution in a newly comprehensive atlas of the world, and indeed a forecast of the increased compromise after the transition to LED lights in Europe.


V-Band:LED projection forecast.jpg


For among the growing list of anthropogenic changes recently mapped, nothing can capture disenchantment so much as the artificial illumination of the night-time sky in a globalized world–even as an expanding amount of artificial illumination has changed our perceptual relation to the night-time world, and a consequent reduction of apparent celestial light.  The global spread of access to artificial night-time illumination has so expanded the extent of the diffraction of light to create an almost omnipresent afterglow of the night-time sky to compromise dark-adapted abilities of vision as well as stellar visibility.  Not only has the explosion of light pollution across much of the inhabited world compromised and obscured night vision of stars across much of the inhabited world for one third of the planet’s residents, but the rapid increase in artificial light in much of the night sky–now measured as growing at a rate of 5-10% each year–threaten to obscure in due time the notion of stellar visibility, sufficient to provoke the neurological correlative of disenchantment from stellar visibility in the night sky.  The obscuring of night sky that is projected to be caused by the unnecessary addition of nocturnal illumination by LED lights is projected to increase the scattering of atmospheric light to produce such an extreme artificial brightness in much of the night-time sky over future decades was projected, if keeping at the conservative current rate of growth of light levels of 6% per year, that few or no Americans will be able to perceive the stars of the Milky Way.






The increased compromising of activities as star-gazing offers and instance of the ever-increasing disenchantment of our perception of the environment, as artificial illumination increasingly erodes the possibility of being alone in relation to the night-time world.


falchi1HR-milky-way-over-park.jpgMilky Way Seen on Utah-Colorado Border in Dinosaur National Monument/Dan Duriscoe


Nikolay Doychinov:Angence France Presse--Getty Images.pngNicolay Doichinov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


For this reason, the interest of the ability to map the extent of nocturnal illumination across most of the inhabited world–and especially across its most densely inhabited centers of habitation–has grown as a needed assessment of the state of stellar visibility.

For if most are not so much enslaved in a Weberian “iron cage” to bureaucratic systems of efficiency, calculation and control than they feel removed from experience, many do find the experience of night-time and night-vision increasingly compromised by the insistent or incessant visibility of much of the globe, where night-time glow obscures constellations for over three-quarters of the United Kingdom, even as Stonehenge is privileged as a site of druidical celebrations.  If witnessing the summer solstice sunrise is a centering annual rite for many, the increasingly compromised visibility of night-time stars suggests an unpredicted but disorienting effect of over-inhabitation, where the near-constant illumination of population centers creates an anthropogenic effects of not fully understood consequences, as well as obscuring the visibility of starry skies now only able to be glimpsed in remote areas, removed from the intense afterglow of urban lights, and revealing the extent of the natural illumination of the night-time sky.


meteor-Eta-Aquarid-5-6-2016-darla-Young-Carthage-AR1-e1466811727327-1.jpgDarla Young, Peak of Eta Aquaria Meteor Shower (May 2016)/EarthSky


For if the spirituality of witnessing the solstice sunrise exits as an independent event, as if to recognize its continued existence independent of human agency and as following in the paths of the ancient meaning of the stones’ placement in a circle of monumental frames, imposes a continued meaning on observers, as if “bringing us as it were into its field of force” in Charles Taylor’s words, over-illumination reveals an anthropocentric belief in our access to night-time spaces and a control of space that reduce any sense of a world separate from human agency, even while mapping the extent of global over-inhabitation–and, as Ben Henning showed in a gridded cartograms in the over-illumination of the world’s most densely inhabited areas.  And while we consider globalization as having a distinct set of “winners” and “losers,” the mapping of the effects of the increase in artificial illumination that is already visible in the night sky is most  evident in the increased obstruction of stellar visibility over the most developed areas of the world.


Earth at Night--NASA photo and equal-pop projection


The “devastating senselessness” that Max Weber feared and predicted has a basis for disenchantment has progressed in different directions in the increasing departure of much of the globalized world from access to night skies, and the contraction of areas of continued visibility of night-time skies, meteor showers or constellations.  Increasingly,  many websites urge driving to find “darker skies” away from the glow of city lights to recuperate an increasingly threatened sense of contact act with witnessing the stars, setting out in search for spatially relocating oneself to have contact with the arrival of Perseid meteors or to view Leonids, in secluded spots where the glow of car headlights or nocturnal illumination of highways and city streets won’t compromise night vision in an increasingly personalized age, to seek a sort of spiritual purity in star-gazing.

And so, back to Stonehenge.  The Dutch medievalist Johann Huizinga shrewdly observed “The modern city hardly knows true silence or true darkness any more, nor does it know the effect of single small light or distant shout” in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919).  Even if electric lights were once confined to cities and urban areas, the presence of light is now also invading the skies of rural areas in the diffracted luminescent of night-time glow. Indeed, the performance of sacred rites of the celebration of solar observation at Stonehenge recoups a re-enchanted world rooted in the wonder of solstice, and engage in the ecstatic sense of observing the sun rising though placed stones.  The promise of a return to ancestral rhythms of witnessing the renewal of dawn is a means of restoring alignment to cosmic rhythms, particularly apt as observing stellar light is increasingly inaccessible to most of the world’s populations.  Ye the re-enchantment of Stonehenge, by no means the only circle of ancient stones but perhaps the most romanticized, has even as the overlit presence of man-made night has radically altered the global skies–the celebration of solstice runs against the growing skyglow in night skies, and re-evaluate the future of any un0bstructed points of access to “natural” levels of celestial light–already raising fears that led former  to “illuminate” the stones would have only further distanced observers from the celestial calendars that Stonehenge was designed to mark.





The mythical power of Stonehenge derives from the very nature of unknown reasons for its construction, which have long lead it to be tied to a sense of mystically recuperating cosmic harmony through the ancient even arrangement of its stones, long assumed to offer a neolithic astronomical observatory, if not a basis for computing the calendar.


Stonehenge solstice sunset Pete Glastonbury, 2008Stonehenge Summer Solstice Sunset, Pete Glastonbury (2008)


The rudimentary astronomical observatory  on the plateau of Salisbury plain, has a historical aura of harmony with celestial spheres, but may increasingly serve as a nostalgic reminder of an  era when rhythms of time were divided by the clear distinction between night-time sky and sunrise, and has become something of a shrine and site of pilgrimage for pagans seeking to get in touch with astrological rhythms that are increasingly distanced from human sight in a world where stellar visibility is increasingly reduced by artificial light luminance–and contact with sources of celestial light compromised.



stellar stSummer Solstice at Night in Stonehenge (2010)/Gabriel Stargardter


The shared awe in observing the sun rise through the stones defines a site of renewal increasingly in demand in a disenchanted world.  But although the earth is most continuously illuminated by the sun’s rays in midsummer, increased presence of night-time glow across the northern hemisphere has so subtracted stellar visibility to compromise the darkness of night skies, including in the UK.  It may be time to ask whether the mystery of the encounter with dawn at Stonehenge this summer solstice may be hampered by the subtraction of starlight from across the night-time sky–dampening the shared awe of watching the illusion of the first light of dawn expanding through the sarsen stones, as the sun rises from the easternmost point of the horizon.


Stonehenge sunrise.pngEddie Mullholland/The Telegraph


stonehenge solstice bwThe Telegraph–Summer Solstice at Stonehenge 2015


The ceremony of witnessing the surprise at the monumental structure of lintened stones has regained a sense of sacrality–if not pop spectacle–but may acquire a more wistful flavor as starlight is less visible from the ground.  In an era when artificial light pollution is so widely diffused across the northern hemisphere, even the “place” of Stonehenge is in a sense stripped of its sense of specificity, with the increased obscuring of star from the night-time sky.  Diminishing stellar visibility stands to change stargazing forever for most of England.  While ecstatic revelry among witness seeks to restore ancestral ties in the circular placement of trilithons that appear to echo a cosmic order, diminishing starlight and night-time in much of England may change that rather drastically.


Temporarily used for contact details: The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email:, Website: Heritage


The meaning longest day may seem divested of symbolic meaning in an era when night-time light pollution threatens to defamiliarize much of England with the stars–and much of Europe as the glow of electrical lighting has begun to mask a greater amount of the Milky Way.  With increasing stars removed from the night-time skies, obscured by artificial sky glow that removes the constellations from 77% of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, especially in many cities, and reducing areas to view the night sky’s stars–as has been revealed in a new global atlas of night-time levels of illumination by sources of artificial man-made light, a striking atlas of the effects of human habitation.  The fading of constellations by artificial airglow is perhaps a cartographical metaphor for modern alienation–a sense of alienation which stands to increase as sodium lights are replaced with cool white LED lights, obscuring even a greater share of stars from the night-time sky with the diffusion of light pollution–as has been mapped increasing obstruction artificial light so intense to obscure night-time illumination by celestial light.



above natural light


Even if the site  of Stonehenge may continued to be treasured as a privileged site of astronomical observation, witnessing the sun’s rise each midsummer through the stones of the sarsen circle has occurred for over 4,000 years, the stones placed on an axis lining up with sunrise on the the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  The sarsen circles has long led it to be a site of celestial measurement or ancient astronomy, but the congregation to its site may gain new symbolic relevance in a world increasingly illuminated by artificial light–an overfit world, where the viewing of celestial lights, and even the light of the milky way, has rapidly reduced as increasing artificial brightening has redefined the visibility of the night-time sky and the observation of sunrise, and artificial sky brightness seriously compromises stellar visibility for the most inhabited parts of the world–encouraging the growth of protectionist outfits like the International Dark Sky Association to call attention to those sites that still have low levels of light pollution by online toolslisting those communities that adopt ordinances for low-luminecense places,  including Flagstaff AZ, Borrego Springs CA, and the Isle of Sark and Isle of Coll in the UK–but not Salisbury, despite its relative lack of urban development.




Diminished visibility of constellations to the naked eye may offer a metaphor for collective disorientation from celestial skies–or a sense that the stars are no longer clearly aligned.




Even as crowds of 20,000 gather to mark the rising of the sun through the rock circle, the sky will not only be much less darker when the sun rises but the stars less clearly visible:  the need to see such purified solar light may have grown with abundant artificial light pollution across so much of the over-developed world, where the absence of the dark night sky extends over an increasing area of the world than previously thought possible.

Indeed, although the Ministry of Defense plans to build new modular homes for troops returning from Germany on the Salisbury plain that will actually obscure the Stonehenge sunrise on the horizon near Stonehenge by 2020, will the spectacle of sunrise be as dramatic after the night sky is artificially lightened by the widespread adoption of LED lighting?



0006bc60-642NASA-Earth at Night


Witnessing dawn at Stonehenge may continue to awe, but the presence of dark skies is now foreign to much of the world.  The extensive spread of artificial illumination across so many inhabited areas of the world have been documented a ground-breaking global atlas of light pollution, synthesizing a holistic record of the diffusion of light across the continents, that has been created from tens of thousands of high-resolution infra-red images of nighttime lights across the continents.  The images in the atlas offer the first chance to survey and assess an increasingly constant illumination of the night-time sky–in which the prevalence of widespread artificial light stands to diminish the impact of sunrise, if not the arrival of the longest day of summer.  Indeed, the dispersed intensity of artificial illumination has increasingly degraded the visibility of the night-time sky evident in mapping of the extent by which artificial night-sky brightness obscures the visibility of the stars.


artificial sky brightness

scale bar SQM

Artificial Night-Sky Brightness


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide.jpg


Nocturnal illumination has become so ubiquitous across the inhabited world that it is almost a proxy for inhabitation, the solstice may mark far less noticeable change, so removed is “natural” illumination of celestial sources from the experience of most.   The atlas is the most recent in the accumulation of convincing evidence–as if it was needed–of the arrival of the anthropocene.  It represents the culmination of the attempts of Fabio Falchi to chart the extent of light pollution in the night-time sky, refined many times since he used similar tools to create the dataset of first-ever light pollution atlas in 2001 using a Air Force satellite–and Falchi and his collaborators would be the first to note that since then, nocturnal illumination has increased some 6% each year in Europe and the United States, in ways that now make it hard to understand what “natural” might be, and even harder to imagine experiencing how a night sky without light pollution would appear.

The publication of the atlas is something of an actual wake-up call:  for it has synthesized for the first time the extent artificial night-time light pollution across the globe is not only an image of light sources, but of upward emissions of light from more densely inhabited areas that are diffused through the environment, and often refracted by the atmosphere riche with aerosols.  The data maps document a world defined by almost ubiquitous light pollution that is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, but the massive synthesis of the light emitted across the world reveals multiple magnitudes beyond the “natural” starry sky.  Whereas “natural” lighting was once confined to celestial sources, the growing ubiquity of night-time luminescence has created artificial airglow altering the experience of the dark night-time sky.  The atlas even allows one to calculate distances necessary to travel to perceive a night-time sky that is free from artificial brightness–and to observe how much areas free from artificially generated night-time illumination have actually shrunk for many of the world’s inhabitants in much of the northern hemisphere, and in which Antarctica is the only continent not afflicted by the pollution of artificially generated light.  The new distribution of light intensity whose visible impact –the most visible footprint of over-modernization–suggests a massive environmental change whose consequences are only beginning to be understood.


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society

visual impacts



The spectacular synthesis of high-resolution infra-red data allows an opportunity to assess the environmental alterations created by night-time light as never before.  The calculation of Sky Quality Measurement along a Lambert projection reveals how electric light travels hundreds of miles far from its sources, damaging night-time skies across much of the globe.  Despite its very pervasiveness as a global problem–and one that has advanced so rapidly–the geographical extent of changes in night-time luminance has been rarely perceived or adequately synthesized, until the calibration of “artificial illuminance” offers tools to map the presence of light in the night-time skies in high-resolution form.  The synthesis of data from across the world by infrared imaging offer a better sense of the extent of the ubiquity of the degradation of night-times skies by using a Visible Infrared Radiometer Suite to calculate the relative brightness of previously dark skies, suggesting a world that increasingly glows with frightening intensity, where the illumination only by celestial bodies only exists at sea.  Digital cartography remotely measured by satellite telemetry meets environmental history to raise provoking questions of just how far we have moved form a world where night time was confined to celestial illumination.  Whereas stars might have offered bearing, as they long did, to global location.  Has the ubiquity of geolocation arrived at time when we have lost the ability, as well as the need, to easily calculate global position by celestial observation of the stars?

The concentration of regions of light pollution in Europe, where the intensity of night-time illumination is often ten times above the “natural” levels of celestial illumination from the moon and stars–


Light-Polution-Map-Europe-GeoawesomenessRoyal Astronomical Society

above natural light


–and is only rivaled by the eastern seaboard of North America and eastern half of the United States.  Indeed, in erasing the dominance of celestial sources of illumination, night-time vision has been degraded for much of the global population with consequences we have rarely considered, with the result that events such as the summer solstice are far less clearly defined parts of our calendar.  Whereas Milton once expressed awe at the creation of stars “set . . . in the firmament of heaven/To illuminate the earth,” and “sowed with stars the heaven thick as a field” of light, “Their small peculiar, though from human sight/So far remote, with diminution seen,” the erasure of stars from much of the night-time sky suggest a degree of alienation from one’s environment.  The inundation of the night-time atmosphere with artificial light around the Nile delta, for example, gives the region a  surreal glow that, while beautiful in its own eery way, registers the rivers’ pollution of a striking the density of electric lights.





The atlas of images that registers the distribution of nighttime illumination based on data from the NOAA–NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite uses new indices of Sky Quality Measurement of the night-time sky, to measure the rapidity and nature of this massive change of our shared experience of the degree to which artificial “skyglow” or luminance has compromised the starriness of the night sky.  Using indices based on a ration between artificial brightness and the “natural” background brightness of the night sky removed from man-made sources of light (174 μcd/m2) provides the best measure yet of the ever-present “horizon glow” generated by cities–which, if once confined to factory towns, has become a characteristic of the night sky.  The recent synthesis  of the presence of night-time light pollution across the globe is not only an image of light sources, but the upward emissions of light from more densely inhabited areas.  Its synthetic images document a world defined by almost ubiquitous light pollution that is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, but the massive synthesis of the light emitted across the world reveals multiple magnitudes beyond the “natural” starry sky.

Across the United States over 40% of whose inhabitants can no longer view the heaves with eyes adapted to night vision, on account of the ever-brighter built surroundings.  While an inability to adapt to night vision is less true for Europeans as a whole (15%), according to the team run by Fabio Falchi, about a third of the world’s inhabitants are no longer able to discern the stars of the Milky Way across the nighttime sky, obscuring stellar visibility for much of its inhabitants, in a marked impoverishment of perception not limited to overnight camp-outs, increasingly endemic to urbanized areas, where exceeding magnitudes of twenty-fold seems increasingly common.


Artificial Light USA North AmericaRoyal Astronomical Society

above natural light


Unlike an image of the local illumination of space in the United States, as that created by NASA in 2012 of the levels of lighting across the entire earth and the United States–


nocturnal illumination.png


–images in the atlas of artificial light tracked the expansion of light pollution across the world’s surface and in different regions, through a dataset that measured degrees of local environmental degradation, rather than noting local levels of emission of artificial light or the relative intensity of local levels of light.  The result is a clearer sense of how light alters space, and indeed compromises levels of man-made light visible at any place, a far more sensitive record of local environment.


Artificial Light USA North America.jpg


If the dataset is made on the same measurements of local light intensity, the result is to better map the persistent presence of light in an atlas of artificial light’s presence, or “artificial sky luminance,” to measure the propagation of the nighttime landscape.

The overwhelming extent of anthropogenic effects of increasing light pollution have been measured and documented the first atlas of the night sky, compiled from data collected by a U.S. Air Force satellite after some 15 years of study.  The recent atlas registers an amazing rate of increased intensity of light pollution at an annual rate of 6% in North America and Europe.  It found that as much as 83% of the world’s population and more than 99% of the inhabitants of Europe and the United States live under steeply light-polluted skies (with an  artificial sky brightness great than 14 μcd/m2)–as much as 88% of Europe and half of the United States regularly experience skies so compromised by light pollution.  At one extreme, night-time skies in the country of Singapore prevent inhabitants from adapting to night vision and light pollution fully masks the Milky Way.


Light-Polution-Map-Asia-Geoawesomeness.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society


To be sure, sub-saharan Africa is less subject to light pollution, aside from its western coast–but an intensity of light traces the course of the River Nile, and is striking across most of the Middle East, in ways that suggest possibilities of neurophysiological change.


Light-Polution-Map-Africa-Geoawesomeness.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society


The increasing swaths of light pollution in more densely built and inhabited areas–also including Israel, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Malta, Egypt and Qatar–where over or approaching half of their inhabitants have no chance of viewing the Milky Way raises the possibility of inevitable challenges of viewing a clear nocturnal starry sky in much of the globe, or of light uncontaminated by artificial lighting across the world.  Indeed, the reduced of areas of “natural” light save in regions of Africa and the Australian outback maps–in ways comparable to the near-absence of regions of the United States free from man-made sound–the conflation of nature and culture that defines the anthropocene.

Africa indeed folds in upon itself, as much of central South America, in a gridded cartogrammic warping of a Robinson projection of the world as it is illuminated at night, by Benjamin Hennig, based on NASA’s measurements of night-time lights in 2012:  while Hennig has created a warped image of to show the proportional degrees of light in which more inhabited regions of the world live, and the stunning illustration of the inequality in illumination against an equal population projection of the world.


Redistribution of world at night by PopulationBenjamin D. Hennig


Hennig had taken as the basis for his own dataset the earlier 2012 NASA data, which showed an image of earth still largely drenched in dark, if spotted by points of light reaching a huge density in Europe and North America, as well as Japan, yet doesn’t register the effects of light pollution propagation, as light diffuses in the local atmosphere and travels far from its actual source–as Hennig’s map is distribution of light sources over space–and only partly registers “the end of night as you know it,” as the NASA Earth Observatory promised, after gathering night-time data in a continuous image of the earth over 312 orbits made in April and October 2012.


WERH ANT NIGHTNASA Earth Observatory (click to download map views)


Night is more removed today, but the need to celebrate the separate nature of night from day seems central to our perception of the environment, as is our need for ceremonial contact with the sun.  Indeed, the Stonehenge solstice celebrations evoke the ancient past in coming weeks, for all their fictive historical recreation of Uther Pendragon and Merlin, mythically credited with constructing the circle of sarsen stones of Stonehenge–


stonehengesummersolstice2010-druidkingarthurpendragonvintagedepthttpflic.krp8cb6n8.jpg Vintagedept Creative Common


suggest a modern lamentation of the lost world of diminished light, when the fierceness of the solstice pierced through the dark world at dawn, in ways that are increasingly lost to our overlit world, as well as an attempt to evoke the mystery of first contact with sunlight.


stonehengesummersolstice2010-thesunrisesbehindthestonecirclevintagedepthttpflic.krp8caz6f.jpgVintagedept Creative Commons


If the increasing nature of artificial brightness in the sky, registered here in a composite map of night brightness, created in a composite photography from tens of thousands of high-resolution images taken by the NOAA–NASA Suomi National Partnership satellite.  Since the first global image of night-time illumination was devised in the late 1980’s, the quantitative measurement of variations in specific light sources since 1998 from unsaturated data has provided a new nature of measuring “stellar extinction” and indeed capabilities of night vision, by measuring the scattering of light in atmospheric aerosols and the effects of light flux of terrestrial earth-bound sources on the night-time skies–in the name of reducing energy consumption, despite the potential hazard of blue-rich light, some five-times more disruptive to the human sleep cycle than the electric lighting conventionally used in much of the world.


artificial sky brightnessRoyal Astronomical Society


We seem to stand at the verge of increased light pollution, moreover, with the arrival in Europe of high luminesce efficiency LED lighting.  The increasing rate of artificial illumination is not only not poised to end, but the future shift to 4000K CCT LED technology suggests and increasingly illuminated world–one of whose brightest spots happens to be near to where the monument of Stonehenge lies.  The increasing pinks and white-hot areas of huge regions in the north of Europe and England suggest a perpetual ambient illumination that seems destined to erase much of the visibility of the night sky–even if LED lighting reduces energy consumption and the use of fossil fuels, it carries health and environmental risk of blue-rich lighting in public spaces, and its increased carcinogenic risk, as well as for cardiovascular disease, and impaired daytime functioning.


Europe and Conversion to 4000K CT technology LEDFalchi et al. (2016)


Indeed, the different levels of luminance between electric and orange high-pressure sodium lamps in the East are immediately and saliently visible in early photographs of Berlin at night, with the gas lamps of the West evident on the left.


Berlin_ISS_nightInternational Dark Sky Association


Already, the visual impact of the luminance of this expansive artificial illumination of the night is particularly pronounced–degrading the visibility of constellation long known to man in much of Europe, and only offering pristine skies at sea–as well as the Nova Scotia, Scotland, Algeria, the western Sahara or Ukraine.  The significant travel required to arrive at regions where artificial brightness was less than 1% of the natural background, with the Milky Way no longer visible in much of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, or from urban environments from Boston to Washington, DC.


visual impactsFalchi et al. (2016)


Indeed, the radical transformation o the night-time skies over much of the world suggest the unique nature of sub-Saharan Africa, where Europeans might in the not to future travel to be able to observe constellations crowding the night-time skies.


Sub-Saharan AfricaRoyal Astronomical Society


What this means for the redefinition of place–as much as of the visibility of the night skies–is particularly troubling, as the advancing tide of artificial illumination suggests not only a reduction in stellar visibility the impoverishes our experience of the night-time world, but a change in the experience of nocturnal darkness, as important for humans as for nocturnal animals.




In Italy, found a 2001 study by Falchi, Cinzano and Eldvidge, using the data of the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, the peninsula was already awash in light, diminishing stellar visibility for some time.


itamini.jpg<0.11 (black), 0.11-0.33 (blue), 0.33-1 (green), 1-3 (yellow), 3-9 (orange), >9

P. Cinzano, F. Falchi (University of Padova), C.D. Elvidge (NOAA Geophysical Data Center-Boulder), Copyright Royal Astronomical Society


The world at night will most probably never be the same, and promote pilgrimages to a reduced number of places in the globe where stargazing is still permitted–now most accessible, if one doesn’t much mind the pitch of waves, on flotillas, or abandoned oil platforms, far at sea–far from an overinhabited continent inundated with artificial light.




While mostly confined to the northern hemisphere in its continuous glare, the image is almost the inverse of where globalization is seen as bringing benefits–and reveals its growing costs to the so-called “winners.”


World at NIGHT.png


Filed under anthropocene, artificial light, global brightening, light pollution, stellar visibility

Mapping the Inequities of the Anthropocene

The notion of the Age of the Anthropocene has inspired an attempt to pinpoint the thresholds of contemporary environmental change.  The recent maps that register the shifts in the Air Quality Index at specific sites offer a way to register the impact of anthropogenic impact on the breathed environment that are especially compelling in tracing the momentous impact that man-made industry–and specifically the burning of coal–has in propelling global inhabitants into an age of the Anthropocene, and indeed in impacting local environments.  The changes of global climates pose peculiar difficulties of mapping by placing ourselves as viewers outside of the momentous changes they describe.  For the notion of mapping the arrival of the Anthropocene–or the signs of the visible impact humans left on the environment raises questions of how a map can trace the footprint humans have left on the earth’s biosphere.  If the epoch of the Anthropocene challenges one to position oneself outside the very processes in which one knowingly or unknowingly takes part, or indeed capture the consequences of a geological change in the biosphere to human life.

Do the differences of the AQI provide a sufficiently compelling map of the local dangers of potentially catastrophic environmental change?  Recent “revisionist ecologists” or self-styled pragmatists have called for forging or discovering possible “Paths Toward a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” as Andy Revkin discussed at his New York Times Dot Earth blog, which stresses not the ecological evils of a narrative of global pollution, but the potential that values determine necessarily tough choices, striking debate that has reverberated in the Twitterverse as a perilous promise or a necessary evil under the hashtag #Anthropocene.  Revkin’s “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” has struck a nerve as subverting the core beliefs of Environmentalism by tweaking it with the prefix New, under the banner of eco-pragmatism.  One part of the basis for such “eco-pragmatism” seems to be the tired nature of the narrative of environmental ecology–or rather, of the alarmist hue that, for Keith Kloor, has morphed over the years from talk of a plundered planet a sixth extinction, and a baked planet to characterizing a planet under severe ecological pressure from multiple directions.  The narrative of the anthropocene, an odd term adopted in common parlance, narrates less a disaster than a widespread constellation of impacts of the human on our notions of nature, of sexual reproduction and differentiation, of genetic transmission, and on the geological record or livability of the atmosphere.

Can maps help this debate, by charting a differentiated view of “impact” and its geographical differentiation and spatial distribution, or in other words tracking anthropogemoc changes in hopes to mitigate its effects?

Can practices of mapping offer means to capture and conjure that constellation of changes, or tools visualize the momentous mechanisms of climatological change in which the human is folded into the environment–and economic activity inscribed in nature–that might most effectively communicate its arrival?  Can effects of the Anthropocene be tracked over space?  As Shakespeare imagined “his cheeke the map of daies out-worne” in Sonnet 68, as if the face were a map of temporal changes wrought by time,  so that “when beauty liv’d and dy’ed as flowers do now,/ Before these bastard signes of faire were borne,/ Or durst inhabite on a living brow,” the maps below of local levels of air pollution bear the scars of time and global capital. To track the disparities that mark the close of the Holocene is to trace the introduction of previously unforeseen limits on the expansion of human activities and indeed the sphere of human freedom.   While the entrance into the Anthropocene has been laid at the footstep of industrialized nations with considerable justification, rather than being understood only as a category of geological time, the odd currency of the geological term with a geography of the earth’s habitabilty.  

The difficulty–if not near-impossibility–of returning to a healthier presence of CO2 in our atmosphere “from [current levels] to at most 350 ppm” voiced by climatologist Dr. James Hansen–and the organization– might be less easily solved than they hope, and might even risk orienting discourse on the Anthropocene toward remediation and restoration of equilibria.  Indeed the hope for such a return to a level of safety from current levels surpassing 400 ppm are not only a huge change from early eighteenth-century levels of 275 ppm, may distract attention from the deeper consequences of the enmeshing of the human in the biosphere:  the deeper inequities of our globalized economy are revealed in a more variegated map of our entrance to the Anthropocene.   The disproportionate contribution of industrialized countries to carbon emissions create well-known ethical questions of the distribution of shared responsibility for a crisis in climate change given the unequal distribution of the anthropogenic origins of climate change, emblematized by the disparities in fossil fuel emissions worldwide–which most ominously ballooned from the mid-1960s to the present day.

Carbon Emissions

Despite the use of maps to localize disparities in fossil fuel emissions, map smog map smog or define localized ozone holes, no greater detail is available in maps than disparities in air quality.   As we struggle undertake to trace such disparities, it is especially striking web-based maps reveals deep discrepancies in how levels of pollution have constrained questions of habitability at local levels, already evident in the imbalances revealed in data taken from the World Health Organization of the variations in the distribution of local means of small particle matter less than 2.5 microns across the earth.

Global Particulate Matter 2:5 WHO

The challenge of translating changes in the biosphere to a static map is not easy.  Even visualizing the range of changes runs the risk of reducing or distracting the intensity of their impact.  Dipesh Chakrabarty has aptly observed how environmental change constitutes “as a geophysical force, [a situation where] we now wield a different kind of agency as well – one that takes us beyond the subject/object dichotomy, beyond all views that see the human as ontologically endowed beings, beyond questions of justice and human experience.” For the very reason that we are immersed in its changes, we are challenged to read the record of massive changes and shifts in global environment of the sort registered in a map.

But the regional distributions of variations in that manmade environments have been recently readily synthesized on a Google Maps API to provide a scary spectrum of how we alter polluted air quality in real time:  the shifts in select areas of the world–even if these areas which release pollutants that of course disperse worldwide–reveal one image of the uneven distribution of our entrance into the era of the Anthropocene. And although the ethics surrounding the degree to which over-industrialized countries have over-contributed to the advancing of markers of the dawn of the Anthropocene–from global warming to increased CO2 emissions to ocean salinity–the spectrum of the local distribution of air pollutants demands to be read.  The coding of such pollutants in the AQI keys each region by its departure from acceptable levels of health–and indeed the departure from standards of the Holocene, based on different levels or parts per million of contaminants able to lodge in the lung.

legend with promos

If the dawn of the Anthropocene presents itself as a counter-discourse to a globalized economy, raising the multiple specters of the risks and dangers of unfettered economic development and growth, it reflects inescapable constraints on those very practices and presumption of human liberties:  for it articulates “biogeochemical processes which [not only clearly] imperil the human species’ life-support system; it is also the antithesis of a politico-ontological condition central to modernity: freedom,” as Ben Dibley has observed in his Seven Theses on the Anthopocene, and articulate the parameters or constraints in which human freedom must henceforth now be re-understood–constraints in which mechanisms of the market might be able to secure and to perpetuate livable conditions of an easily habitable space.

Mapping real-time concentrations of pollutants offer snapshots of specific moments, rather than images of a geological “deep time” or defining a single tipping point of long-term ecological flows.  But the discrepancies in global air pollution registered in a real-time air quality index map charts reported measurements of airborne pollutants in a Google Maps API to trace a shifting canvas of how we are now engaged in the alteration of the environment. While misleading to some, in its claim that “Good” levels of pollution exist in many regions, the distribution raises stunning divisions in the levels of local atmospheric contamination based on air quality indices.   As of today, the map suggested particularly localized pockets of pollutants, with a surprisingly large number of sites marked red (Unhealthy; 151-200 AQI, as defined by AirNow) and violet (Very Unhealthy, 201-300 AQI), and three sites in Delhi, Finland, Austria, and Coyhaique, Chile viewed of Hazardous air quality levels of over 300, which qualifies for a health alert. This sort of mapping of the man-made environment, where discrepancies in air pollution can be readily registered, offers something of a map of anthropogenic effects.  Variations in pollutants offer blunt tools to trace the disparities of anthropogenic impact on the global atmosphere–or to register a “local” distribution of the geophysical forces of the impact of Anthropocene.

pokets of pollutants

As one scrolls across or zooms in to discern the different distribution of colored placards that dot the map’s familiarly and largely light green surface, one readily flags something like environmental divides across both large regions of the global atmosphere, as well as specific noticeable differences of place, no doubt relating to industry, and shifting standards that raise the question of whether entrance to the Anthropocene is indeed the other side of the coin of globalization, or how much local, regional, and indeed striking national differences persist in this mapping of inhaled air, clustering in individual countries’ different standards of emissions for industry or automobiles.

Mapping Air Divides

The cartographical labels in the above map tracking air-pollutants offers a new grounds for the label “Red China” by the density of its clustering of unhealthy levels of air pollution as of this May 22:

%22Red%22 China

A recent study from the researchers at  Berkeley Earth has measured the devastating effects of such levels of pollution, caused mostly by coal-burning, on China’s population, and does better by discriminating the levels of specific pollutants:  the lack of restrictions on coal-burning contributes a devastating number of deaths of 4,400 Chinese each day, totaling some 1.6 million annually, on account of the diffusion of airborne particles of less than 2.5 microns in diameter–able not only to lodge in the lungs, but be absorbed into the bloodstream, in ways that t take the notion of the Anthropocene to the level of the embodied.  Based on hourly readings at some 1,500 stations in mainland China, Taiwan and Korea, the distribution of almost entirely man-made pollutants can be tied with relative certainty to increasing rates of asthma, strokes, lung cancer, and heart attacks.  And the numbers are shocking, from the concentration of particulate matter in the particularly pungent sulfur dioxide, released by burning fossil fuels, or nitrogen dioxides, a toxic pollutant emitted from the widespread combustion of petrochemicals:

PPB China
Alarmingly high levels of pollutants greater than 2 ppb/hour.

It is no surprise that sites of industry where coal-burning is allowed offer more clearly defined sites of concentration of Sites of industry divide and readily distinguish air quality dramatically worldwide and in North America, revealing the local impact of the human on the biosphere:

Lake Eirie pollutants in air around Lake Bad Air Belt in Georgia, May 21 3 pm

The largely “green” California, whose ocean rim encourages a high quality of air, even with its own well-known pockets of pollution in its Southlands:

California Green? May 21, 3-18

Piled up green rectangles don’t all equally signify healthy air quality, one should again note, but the discrepancies from Los Angeles to Tijuana, Mexico are nice to place in relief.

Southern California Air

Given the increased amounts of small particulate matter of a radius of less than 2.5 microns in much of southern California, whose clickable feature show the somewhat overly bulky embedding of data in this world map–

PM 2.5

the proportion of this particularly pernicious pollutants to entering and lodging within human lungs can’t help but recall a current rash of uncontrolled fires searing southern California’s coastline this mid-May, themselves tied to the effects of human presence:

California Fires mid-May 2014

Such considerably broad variations in air quality force one to wander more broadly over the slippy map’s surface,  exploring ties, evoked in how Ben Dibley’s characterized the Anthropocene as newly emerging global apparatus folding global economic relations in the geographic that creates the “terrestrial infrastructure for global capital.” The arrival of an Anthropocene, Dibley clarifies, “signals a geological interval since the industrial revolution, where, through its activities, through its numbers, the human species has emerged as a geological force now altering the planet’s biosphere,” evident in the exponential growth of the human population and the arrival of new geographical strata of Anthropocene rock built to serve the needs of ever-expanding inhabitants:  concrete highways, sidewalks, parking lots, airports and landing strips, or Superfund sites of toxic waste or garbage patches and trash vortices, steel shopping centers, loading zones, or the earlier mines, garbage dumps, and railroad depots that collectively signify the remaking of the inhabited world, but whose totality comes to create parameters for future growth.  The changing global apparatus to the earth system in which the human is an agent appears the underside of a narrative of modernization, whose inescapable telos is not emancipation from natural forces or limits, but entrapment by them:  freedoms to pursue economic development become the primary threats to the support system enabling human life.  Despite difficulties in relying on Google Maps as a measure of the constraints on that freedom, the measure of atmospheric pollutants lift a corner on the increasingly circumscribed limits that actually curtail individual freedom. Its measurement is particularly compelling for what they suggest about how economic development tied to the project of modernity come to constrain the world’s continued inhabitation by human life–as the pernicious nature of the development of Abu Dhabi throws into relief.

Emirates and Abu Dhabi 5.21, 3-10

This sort of a map is predicated on the numbers on which it is based.  The variations in measurements of air quality are striking on the Canadian border, perhaps revealing different standards or sampling practices.

Lower Canada

Europe offers interesting variations in quality of healthy air, with most danger signs located in the UK and North Sea:

%22Europe%22 in Air Pollutedness   Ireland, North Sea and Germany may 21, 3 pm

Central Europe, thought a bear of industry and coal, seems both highly monitored and at the same time roughly comparable to England:

EU Air

But the pocket of air quality that is literally off the charts one day near to Ankara–999–raises questions about how relatively low readings are in cities quite nearby.

Ankara and Turkey, May 21 3-06 pm

To be sure, Anatolia can also, in other real-time maps, seem quite green on other days:

Anatolia can also be so Green

Real-time air pollution seems egregiously under-reported in South Asia, however, despite real high readings in two concentrations that seem quite situated at first glance:

Southern Asia:india

But a slightly magnified scale reveals greater local detail in a polluted zone:

near Rajiv Gandhi Infotech Park

Even if the readings of unhealthy air quality around Pune and Mumbai, if concern for alarm, are not comparable to Ankara:

Near Mumbai   Pune--Very Unhealthy!

The accessibility of a full report of air quality of any place on a pop-up screen suggest a level of detail, to be sure, that this post does not do justice. But one is impelled to marvel at the stark inequities in the Anthropocene, both surprising and unjust, from Mexico City to Ankara or China:

Mexico City at continental divide   Ankara and Turkey, May 21 3-06 pm

The striking global inequalities of concentrations of air pollution that seem particulate endemic across China cannot, however, help but give pause for the hazardous concentrations of particulate matter that they indicate.

Chinese Cities

Despite a dangerously uniform measurement of particulate matter (AQI) verging on or surpassing 200, the concentration in Shanxi provide is particularly striking near its shore, and reaches an apex of 890 in Shangdong province, despite poor air quality of particular unhealthiness in the gulf:

Shanxi Province, pocketsin ports

The remarkably high levels of air pollutants along the Yellow River is particularly alarming and striking, since pockets of particulate matter of less than 10 microns, particularly dangerous to the respiratory system, approach hazardous levels in Shangdong (890), and even finer–and more dangerous–clusterings of much more dangerous particulate matter of diameter less than 2 microns, able to lodge more deeply in the lungs, reach hazardous levels in Bizhou.  Have the health risks been conceived?

Clusters in Binzhou   Binzhou

In the south of China, from Chengu to Hubei to Anhui provinces, one can trace a stream of red flags along rivers, and multiple regions of unhealthy air quality deep in the interior:

Chengdu to Hubei

The far better air quality in the Guangdong region, in sharp contrast, reveals concentrations of airborne pollutants outside of the port of Hong Kong.

Guangdong Province-outside Hong Kong

But what to make, on the eve of the accord between China and Russia on natural gas pipelines, of the apparent absence of limits on air pollutants in so very much of the PRC?

Mapping Air Divides

The commercial tie-in is rather obvious, and the map may be a marketing device for masks made to filter out particulate matter, in a wonderful example of cartographical product placement:

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Filed under 'Good' Anthrpocene,, Andy Revkin, anthropocene, AQI, Berkeley Earth, Mapping Air Pollutants, Mapping Air Quality

Maps, Mapping, Globalism: Imaging the Ecumene’s Expanse

That most ancient of words, Oikumene, expanded from the Greek “oikos” to designate a dwelling or residence, or ecumene denoted less the technical abilities of mapping or tools for describing of the world than the demarcation of inhabited lands in which civilized people or members of the church existed:  but the divulgation and expansion of the notion of mapping abilities have in recent years, since the explosion of information databases and during intense globalization since the 1980s, extended the notion of the ecumene that has grown to extend beyond the map.  It increasingly is invested as a terms with ethical connotations to understand or foreground humanity’s relation to its environment–or retake the human from the map–at a time when virtually no part of the world is not inhabited.  Indeed, the possibility of drawing frontiers between an uninhabited and inhabited world–or of defining limits of the inhabitable world–is so diminished that the concept of bounding areas are not clear; the areas of the earth that are no longer inhabited, its “open spaces” or unsettled areas have catastrophically declined in the past twenty years.

But the continued interest we have in describing how we occupy the world, if not demarcating the boundaries of the world, is at the center of the data flows and databases we process in GIS and that increasingly lie at our finger tips.  The instant generation of maps of the inhabited areas of the world have paralleled the catastrophic decline since the 1990s, when a tenth of existing wildlife declined and the catastrophic losses of wildlife confirmed at the  IUCN World Conservation Congress:  the shocking fact that only 23 percent of wilderness remains doesn’t even include the future effects of global warming, the current crisis in history’s tragedies mankind is currently in the process of having created or on its way to create.  Indeed, the destruction of wilderness–what are deemed intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance–has perhaps most radically changed the nature of the inhabited world.  Since the “Last of the Wild” map was first published in 2002, the loss of almost a tenth of formerly uninhabited lands in the last decade is the most rapid expansion of human settlement of the planet, with some 3.3 million sq km of once-uninhabited lands lost, of which 2.7 million sq km2 are considered globally significant–a loss of some carbon biomass in forests destroys a resource that offsets atmospheric CO2.


But let’s return to maps, such realities being to painful for me to contemplate.  Even as the entire earth is now inhabited, much is to be gained in the concept of actively mapping expanse both by preserving an analytic relation to that image of expanse, too often rendered abstractly in computer-generated cartographical media, and encouraging an analytic relation to how the material contents of maps embody space.  Crafting an image of the inhabited world as a bound expanse enjoyed a somewhat neglected historical lineage as a form of knowing the nature of an inhabited world and of orienting viewers or readers to the expanding unknown from the Roman empire:  the considerable intellectual heft of the term inherited from ancients–Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, and Strabo–and its signification of the inhabited and inhabitable earth informed most Renaissance maps and atlases, in which practices of mapping gained new epistemic ends as mediating comprehensive knowledge.

The comprehensive genre of the atlas, an illustrated set of maps promising true global coverage of lands linked by seas, developed in concert with the knowledge that the inhabited world extended beyond earlier imagined confined, and borrowed an expansiveness previously limited to nautical cartography or mapping.  The description of the distance to the edges of the world, if inherited from antiquity, provided a model for understanding the nature of the discoveries for the educated audiences among whom the first maps of the terrestrial ecumene first circulated both in manuscript and print–from the illuminated codices produced in Florence to the massive twelve-sheet wall-map announcing the Columban discoveries that the erudite Martin Waldseemüller compiled in the early sixteenth century Strasbourg from the school at nearby Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.



The visual qualities of mapping, symbolized as an expansive landscape, cast the embrace of the inhabited world with qualities of perceptual transcendence over its variations and divisions.  Ancient geographic treatises included few maps; but mapping the ecumene created a relation of expanse and an observer’s eye in the late fifteenth century by organizing and ordering the globe’s inhabitation.  And although it’s odd to think of the ecumene as an inheritance of ancient geography that’s still employed, the inheritance mapping the inhabited earth resonates with Geographic Information Systems–although fashioning an image of the world’s geography has little of the ethical intent it seems to have enjoyed in both the ancient and early modern worlds.  When we daily orient ourselves to how space is inhabited on our computer screens, iPhones, or androids, we frame an image that bounds a record of how space is inhabited either to orient us to where we are going or how the presence of cars, people, bacilli, or weather defines the inhabit world.  Paradoxically, the growth of GIS technology has increased the manner of ways we can chart the inhabitation and presence of man in space, if it has not increased how we define its continuity, it has also provoked both a Renaissance of mapping and a crisis in the authority of the map as a representational record of the ecumene and its bound, as well as its bounded nature.

While the rest of this post isn’t exactly heavy lifting, but is stuff I’m still processing and finding my way around.

1.  The assemblage of maps in a sequence of global coverage was identified with the cultural distinction Ptolemy gave to the project of world-mapping on a graticule of meridians and parallels, to be sure, both compressing a growing sense of the world’s navigable expanse and indexing its toponymy along climactic zones.  The term ecumene challenged the mental imagination by encompassing local variety in a capacious global category, ordering a global map in a neatly bounded surface beyond the Indian Sea, and up to the limits of known land, in a feat of mental dexterity as much as precise or accurate map of exactly determined scale.  The lower boundary of the map copiously noted “terra incognita,” as later projections–and left it at that, as an expansive white space that exists beyond the sea and lakes of the moons, as this Florentine map includes, adopting the notion of an extensive northern ocean to frame the inhabited world–even while seeing the Indian Ocean as closed.


Indeed, even as the world grew more detailed and other continents were registered as inhabited, as in the Ortelian planisphere, the growth of regions of terra incognito expanded, as if to parallel the known regions which were designated by naturalistic landscapes:  the unknown regions of “America dive India Nova” were paralleled with the imagined “Terra Australis,” a later configuration of the mythical Java la Grande.


The ancient Greek astronomer and scientist Claudius Ptolemy proposed using terrestrial maps on geometrically derived parallels and meridians as tools of portmanteau-like capacity to comprehend terrestrial spaciousness, by segmenting the world’s inhabited surface by degrees of longitude.  The notion of mapping totality was particularly fertile for early map-readers a decade before 1492.  The tools for mapping the ecumene or inhabited world provided an ambitious compendium of global knowledge, although the geographic knowledge of the world was limited–and still was by the time of this world map, illuminated circa 1482:  although restricting the ecumene for modern eyes, its capacious reach extends south to inner Ethiopia and northward, beyond its broken frame, to embrace northernmost isles beyond Thule.  Rings of uninhabited islands indeed constituted, John Gillis has recently noted, part of the mental furniture on the boundaries of the inhabited world for most fifteenth-century men, and suggested a comforting bounding of the world that seemed to illustrate its protection and insulation, lying as it did between uninhabitable climactic zones and far-off seas.

The ethno-centered ancient term maintained a sense of charting the world’s recognizable inhabitants or those that mattered to the readers of maps:  so, in the Augustan age, Roman’s referred to the expanse of the empire as the ecumene, beyond which lived barbarians.  But even as it retained a bounded sense for Renaissance readers, the totalizing image of an ecumene provided a way to imagine the population of an expanse greater than lay in the ken of most–and to understand coherence within a world that included information from far-off lands, even if many fifteenth-century people lacked clear geographic categories of spatial division of an inhabited terrestrial expanse.  The edges of the earth were oddly clear for a period that suggests limited familiarity with expanse: the monsters and extraordinary riches found there were included in fifteenth-century editions of Ptolemy’s handbook of world geography, including elephants in the island of Taprobane, beyond India, trees that had leaves year-round, multitudes of serpents, and cannibals.  These were the signs of the world beyond what humans knew, and included the bare-footed gymnosophists of India.

The compendious divisions of this mental map in a sense informed an engraved world map printed as the sixth page of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, or “Book of Chronicles,” a “universal” history that promised a temporal compendium of world history, embracing historical ages in order to be able depict the division of continents from its creation through after the recession of waters in the Noahic flood through the succession of worldly empires that Augustine and Orosius had famously described–a work that captured the early taste for engravings as mediating information in Renaissance Nuremberg.   Romans discussed their empire as the ecumene, imitating how Greek geographers discussed an ecumene at whose fringes lived fundamentally other foreign Peoples, outside the scope of human concern and beyond the limits of human inhabitability; the world-map in the Chronicle placed outside its borders the excluded races of  Cynocephali, one-footed Sciopods, reverse-footed Antipods, bearded women, and one-eyed cyclopean monsters.  These lay outside the three regions divided among Noah’s three sons Shem, Japhet and Ham, or ecumene, and outside its image of the inhabitable world where humans dwelled, but also reflected the new world that the recession of waters in the Noahic flood had revealed to human sight, and the projection of the world that its editor included registered the shock of the prospectus terrarum that the lessening of global waters worldwide revealed–and the ecumene it unveiled:




Hand-illuminated versions suggests significant curiosity in these creatures placed outside of the map’s ruled boundary who dwelled in a different space from the river-nourished environment of what one supposed to lie on the edges the habited world:


Secunda Aetas Mundi



The ecumene had of course already expanded dramatically by 1490 or 1493 that challenged thought about its both its boundedness and uniformity and cartographical forms to represent spatial expanse.  It continued to expand dramatically in the following years for readers of maps.  Similar monstrous races were included on its peripheries:  in the northern limits of Asia, a boundary of the inhabited world, even in Martin Waldseemüller’s learned Carta marina of 1516–both in response to literary sources and travelogues as well as the mental furniture of the bounded region of human habitability.  Many of these races were left off of the map as “an empirically known space,” for the very reason that they challenged and threatened a human space, and the boundaries of the world revealed by maritime exploration were unknown–even if sea monsters were increasingly banished from the more the edges and unknown areas of the more refined world maps, as the Carta marina.


Waldseemuller 1516 carta nautica


The consciousness of limits of habitability or human settlement was a graphic expression of Strabo’s mandate that geographers show the world’s inhabited part, as much as its inhabitants or populations to readers to satisfy curiosity and to respond to a need to describe its limits, as much as its totality:  “the geographer must describe the inhabited world in its known parts, neglect its unknown regions, as well as what is out of reach” (II, 5,5), placing a primacy on describing those parts of the world or communities in which humans live.  Although most fifteenth-century people did not easily domesticate the idea of an extensive space, let alone an undifferentiated expanse, picturing the unity and comprehensiveness of the ecumene became a basis for thinking about expanse, and comprehending difference:  the image of the ecumene in the Nuremberg Chronicle became a basis for continuing a rambling shapeless narrative grounded in a series of embedded or potted histories of place, each defined around an individual city and city view:  the ecumene was the landscape, if you will, in which each was situated.  There is often limited notation of a matrix of parallels and meridians in what might be called a readable fashion in early Ptolemaic maps:  it helped make space legible and material–or a sense that they are conventions of understanding the dramatic contraction of global space, but not indices of way-finding or marking place, as in these gores, identified with Waldseemüller’s school of cartography, ostensibly made for a small globe.





What has happened to the notion of the ecumene?  Even as the Ptolemaic ecumene was expanded, the community embraced in the map grew, rather than being abandoned, if New Worlds were processed into a map that reduced the prominence of Europe at the center of the inhabited world.  But the expanse of the ecumene held together, as it were, a sequence of regional maps, partly because the concept contained the promise that the whole world could be divided and known in synoptic form in a series of synoptic images that reconciled spatiality and territoriality.  Although mapping the continuity of expanse undergirded Renaissance cartographical images, the precision offered considerable wiggle-room, as it was limited only to the known.  But the division of space into bounded records of expanse were influential; the “chorographical” map of community became a counterpart of the totalizing coverage of a geographic projection.  To be sure, such maps responded to the diversity of ecumene that were discovered.  And maps provided models to mediate culturally fragmented collectivities, and fashion coherence across confessionally-divided communities– as the national map Oronce Fine designed of France to the French national atlases of the late sixteenth century to the English maps of Christopher Saxton, or Philip and Peter Apian’s maps of Central Europe, or a cycle of maps of the Italian peninsula that Egnazio Danti organized for a corridor leading to the apartments of Catholic Pope, discussed in an earlier post.  The coherence of each of these regions provided a sort of microcosm to the ancient geographic ecumene as it gestured to the wold that Romans civilized.


2.  The second half of this blogpost shifts focus.  In ways that less linked to cartographical models, it uses the notion of an ecumene to interrogate the survival of a  mapped global space in more modern mapping techniques.  We now lack similar boundary lines, of course, and measure contact among its regions rather than being awed by the immensity of the world’s expanse.  But the same term gained an ethical heft  in Enlightened thought to express a mandate for cosmopolitans to inhabit the world to become citizens of its entire expanse and cultures.  This shift in meaning, often thought of as a rupture, suggests continuities with the contemplative uses of globes for ancients as signs of learning or stoic remove.  The modern recuperation of the ecumene, distinct from its sense of the community of Christians (inherited from the Enlightenment) or the community of mankind is more striking as a relation to a lived environment, in ways that recuperates the ontological category of ecumene in order to describe and refer to the “humanized” world in which we now live–whose surface is more fully inhabited than ever before, but its nature shaped and informed by humanity both in regional environments and as a whole.

Augustin Berque has emphasized the benefits of attending to a relation, described by Tissier, between man and the planet in his 1993 article in the journal Persée, striking for how they dispense with the very category of a map if provocative for how they recuperate the ancient term in an ethical sense.  The term “ecumenical” oriented the term to the continuity in a community of believers.  But the ethos recuperated by Berque refers to what is human in the world, and a way of being, stripped of a fixed ethnocentric perspective.  By locating the “oikumenal” in terms of human geography stripped of a cartographical foundation, his sense eerily prefigures the images of the inhabited world that are both the benefits and costs of GIS as a basis for judging one’s own relation to the global world.  Berque has removed this ancient term of encyclopedic or positivistic coverage as a material register of geographic toponomy and the ancient craft of map making that embodied a fixed relation to the world.  His construction of an ecumene encompassing human society and its relation to the environment melds nature and culture in ways similar to the ancient term in its ethical connotations.  But his usage oddly dispenses with its graphic construction in favor of a global consciousness:  for in calling attention to the “ecumene,” has removed mankind’s relation with the earth’s surface is removed from a simple demonstrative function of the map:  much as the medium of GIS  defines the inhabitation of the world from one slant or subject, Berque asks us to embrace the multiple effects of mankind on the planet.

Berque believed that with the humanization of the planet complete, and the physical planet dominated by the effects of human life, more emphasis should be placed on a phenomenological analysis of the relation of subject an ambient by this Greek term, now removed from mapping practices to embrace human geography as a tool to consider the relation of man and his [made] environments. Putting aside the value of Berque’s point, the disposition of this philosophical standpoint  reflects the deconstruction of the privileged place of the terrestrial map and of geographic knowledge in GIS, and the image it perpetuates of the inscription of a human geography.  The relation of man and his planet–or the effects of man on the planet–are now the scope of a wide range of GIS maps of human habitation and Google Earth, or maps of influenza, infections and disease in data visualizations or geographic metadata catalogues, whose aim shift from physical geography to the place of mankind in it.  Increasingly, we are prepped to see the world nightly with a false immediacy of the nightly news, less focussed on territorial boundaries than a token of comprehensive coverage, prepped for consumption much as the newscasters who present an account of the “daily novelties” are prepped and outfitted in the apparatus of a news room.


Newscaster prepping.png.JPG


As put it eloquently (and cleverly) by Bruno Latour and friends, our ideas of territory so clearly derive from maps that the digital ubiquity of mapping places us into a new relation to territory:   we now navigate not based on “some resemblance between the map and the territory but on the detection of relevant cues . . .  to go through a heterogeneous set of datapoints” by which to move from different posts to gain new bearings.  We are always navigating a new relation to territory, or understand territorial models, not assuming defined and predetermined boundaries.  This notion of the environment is based on an ability to read signs of its inhabitation and peopling, rather than with reference to previously mapped territories, and is rooted on the ability to navigate by using maps on a screen, rather than on paper–in which the lack of resemblance indeed has further purchase (and persuasive power) as a gain in both certainty and objectivity.


3.  The analytic nature of the reader’s relation to GIS maps is less based on embodying place or expanse in a cartographical manner, because it is not rooted in mimetic qualities.  For the map, in much GIS, is used essentially as the primary field to encrypt variations in data, and removed from any pictorially descriptive function.  Put better, the map is something of a found object, a template, an objective construction in which we sort out the real information that is displayed upon it in an appealingly objective fashion, but one that lacks an orientational power rooted in mimetic claims and indeed turns away from making any actual mimetic claims:



Indeed, the underlying positivism of the objectivity of the map is recycled in most visualizations that are rooted in GIS.  If modernity, as Doreen Massey put it, involved “a particular hegemonic understanding of the nature of space itself, and of the relation between space and society,” drawing expanse on multiple computational platforms in GIS has decoupled space from a precise location:  we now know from a true “view from nowhere.”  The differentiation of terrain or local constructions of space are of less interest than the projection of meaning on a map that is treated as a screen, and several significant local markers may be absent or not noted.  Shifting scale by moving a cursor does not create a more readable space, but provides a very odd reframing of space as a unit that is not comprehended by the reader, but able viewed simultaneously at multiple scales of changing parameters, zoomed into and out of, and adjusted on a digitized scale bar. Our current National Research Council argues in its spatial literacy report on spatial thinking that “the important thing is that they allow for the spatialization of data and use a range of types and amounts of data,” lending primacy to the readability of data over the analytic or representational basis of map-making.

What is physical geography, after all, in many of these maps?  The prime mandate is to map one’s relation to the environment in a readable fashion, rather than to encode layers of local topography or meaning, and to streamline the map to allow its reconfiguration in different datasets that prepare for readability, rather than granularity or density of meaning.  Again, this is based not in mimesis, and no longer based on the notion or mimetic projection of territory:


MacArthur Freeway 11-00

Children's Hospital 11-51

If we speed this up, to look at a sort of time-stop photography of cabs in San Francisco’s downtown area, as did Stamen design in a pioneering map that combined aesthetics and the abundant database of the surveillance operations of Google Maps, and is based on readings taken from the GPS data of the Yellow Cab Company of San Francisco, available also as a film:

Stamen Cabs

Or, in Shawn Allen’s map/photo, which resembles a direct transcription of the taxicab scene in downtown San Francisco on June 15, 2012:

Shawn Allen's map:photo

Does an impoverishment of spatial literacy or toponymy result from such containers of datasets that use maps as formats?  The omniscience and transcendence of the map viewer is immeasurably increased, but the viewer is the receptacle of data, as much as the perceiver of the scene:  new currents are configured and new flows revealed, as data from a variety of sources are richly encrypted into the surface of any given image, compressing the sort of media to which we might have access to a single screen.  One has a different sort of relation to a screen than to a variegated surface, reading a way of configuring information in different ways:  but the difficulty with the screen in particular is its lack of a sense of spatial embodiment. Compare it to an earlier map of the same region, not at all sparing with information but bending backwards to compress legible content within a description of the city’s environment:


These are, perhaps, essentially different modes of data compression, based not only on distinct tacit presumptions, with one angled toward data flows, rather than to the ostensible objectivity of a perceptual model.   But the difficulty to embody data flows can generate an oddly 2-D superficiality that forsakes the very quality transcendence to which earlier ecumene aspired.  Data-streams provide a selective mapping that illuminates one angle of analysis, as it were, rather than aspiring to process an image of the entire city’s or world’s actual inhabitation.

Let’s however insist on being more concrete.  When used to display shifts in a census, the map below displays data removed from topography or centers of population density, and is a data visualization without refined conventions to process its content or meaning for viewers, even if its meaning is quite serious and subject quite human, because it displays information on a static template with little interpretive key–since this map is less of an autonomous and self-standing unit of meaning than a map that demands to be read in reference to familiarity with a map of the distribution of the state’s population:

CO2 emissions


The above map of CO2 emissions of Northern California households elegantly foregrounds one specific reading of the relation of man to the environment. The challenge raised by such an elegant map is to retain communicative flexibility of the conventions of terrestrial mapping, however.  In any GIS map, there is the anger of emptying the format of project from content such as topographic variations, specific local detail, or the dynamic relations of space and habitation within a map:  the conventions of the format gains an iconic or symbolic register alone, in short, and is considerably impoverished as a description of terrestrial habitation when it serves as a field to display data flows or project a database.  One issue is to combine the data with how the analytic framework of the map integrates word and image or creates a structural distribution–something like the poetics of mapping–rather than employ maps as a passive container for spatial information instead of actively creating a way of thinking about space. The mapping of the results of a census regularly lack a sense of topographic variation or differentiation of urban and rural population which would render it more meaningful, and give a plasticity to its already remarkable contents as readable content.  This partly lies in the lack of a dynamic relation between the visual field of the map and its reading, as in this map of the regional variations in the India’s regional population per square kilometer:




The map does not exploit its own conventions of orienting readers to space or expanse.  But GIS mapping offers a significant range of angles by which to read and explain its content.  The relevance of clarifying readers’ relations to the environment are in fact pressing, as revealed on this interactive map–which even includes an option for the reader to learn in detail what s/he can do to help:


Scenarios of Global Warming


At the same time as this pessimistic picture of the actual eventualities of climate change in the age of the anthropocene, the radically shifting nature of a world which is no longer shaped by proximity, or challenged by distance.  The map of internet penetration suggests, rather than a new map of inequalities alone, the new obstacles to the penetration and responses to messages worldwide, and, no doubt, contributed to the difficulty of the transport of needed goods and medical supplies to western Africa during the current epidemic of Ebola, which seems to have left populations scarred by the difficulty in transatlantic communication, as much as the lack of adequate maps, as OSM-H has shown, of adequate mapping on the ground.




Indeed, the map of internet penetration, for all its unpleasant echoes of a colonializing perspective, where first-world countries receive greatest coverage, reveals the extreme difficulties of penetration of all of the coastal countries of West Africa–unlike Nigeria–where the highly contagious virus has proved most difficult to be contained, and information about  the virus less able to be widely disseminated.

Are the edges of the penetration of the internet the most vulnerable edges of the inhabited world, and as the edges of the accessibility and sharing of human information the most vulnerable to cataclysm?


4.  To some extent, this takes us back to Berque’s notion of the ecumene.  But the relative thin-ness of encrypting data projection on the map is so less fine-grained to impoverish the relation between reader and map or registers of engaging readers:  the granularity of the map is particularly great perhaps because the map’s visual qualities are less closely joined with its textual ones, or the hypertext only uses the map as a static schema. There seems the danger of how maps direct our attention to spatial variations and complexity with the proliferation of maps as visual media across different venues and platforms, and a dissipation of the authority of demarcating expanse or of compacting data in a uniform surface.  Perhaps this recalls Berque’s notion of the ecumene as a set of relations to the environment, which can be read in different ways rather than in one way.

The question of habitation has become turned, like a prism, to illuminate new points of view and angles of perception, a topography of habitation indeed seems beside the point.  After all, there are no real areas of the globe that are not inhabited, and the questions of orienting individuals to space seem more pressing than ever on ethical, ecological, and moral grounds alike–if not of just making sense of the effects with which man inhabits space. In a somewhat ponderous post, let’s offer a comic conclusion, however, rather than carping about media for mapping in an age of digital reproduction and increasing vectors of data flow.  The GIS map has become a versatile demographic tool to reframe questions and reveal spatial links, possible vectors of influence or pathways of causation, and indeed maps of emotions or violence.  The question is at root what sort of remove it places the map reader to interpret those vectors on its surface.  There is a temptation to deflate the authority of the descriptive value of such a matrix for its lack of fine grain.  Amidst the attempt to map the Arab Spring there was the inevitable  GIS irony of naturalizing political movements with the ephemerality of a weather map–more a mental map of what the media presented, to be sure, rather than a map designed to orient its content to a reader practiced in interpreting a map’s construction or its conventions.  The map has the value for its viewers of an illusion of transparency and a medium of omniscience:





Or GIS-inspired variations on sabre-rattling from the American right, which was openly alarmist (if not antic) in tone, against a backdrop from Wikipedia commons:




These pseudo-news maps come from the GIS family of signs, even if they are not based on actual data.  They orient viewers with a wiki-like remove. It makes sense that at this point ecumene denotes more of an ethical stance to describe man’s relation to the environment, shifting from to what that process of inhabitation might mean; there is no demand for graphically rendering the inhabited world, but rather the ways mankind inhabits the earth and has filled and marked its space.  But there is a loss of mapping habitations. And so map making in the flexible media of GoogleMaps is no longer an expandable portmanteaux of fine grain, but rather a matrix of data streams where one charts multiple consequences of inhabitation rather the local terrain.  If we no longer have Sciopods outside of our human realm, we lose a sense of an ethics of mapping or even of relating to maps when we dispense altogether with practices of map-making.

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Filed under anthropocene, data visualizations, globalism, Google Maps, metageography, Ptolemaic geography